Looking For Players In Different Leagues: Full-Backs

Kevin Mbabu – 23 – Young Boys

Playing for Swiss champions Young Boys last season, Mbabu put forward some seriously impressive numbers.

With full-backs expected to constantly get up and down the flank, physical attributes are hugely important – particularly for sides who look to play a high pressing game. Mbabu is a good example of a modern full-back, possessing a good amount of pace, while also playing 84.6% of available league minutes last season, not appearing in just four games. @AshwinRaman_ wrote about Young Boys and their title campaign on Medium and talked about their high intensity and pressing play, which makes it impressive that Mbabu was able to feature so often.

It’s not as though Mbabu is only in the team because he can get up and down the flank though, his numbers for getting the ball into the box were also hugely impressive last season. Throwing together right-backs from a bunch of leagues outside the top five, then looking at those 24-years-old and under who played more than 1500 minutes in all competitions sees Mbabu have the highest xA p90 (0.2), make the most crosses p90, 2nd most passes into the penalty box p90, 13th most touches in the box p90, 22nd most deep completed passes p90 and 2nd most deep completed cross p90.

Mbabu also attempted the 3rd most dribbles p90 with 6.97 p90, completing a respectable 67.97% of them.

Off the ball he was fairly active, with 4.76 interceptions p90 and 9.65 recoveries p90, but I haven’t seen enough of him to really comment on his defending.

I feel like clubs looking for a young right-back should definitely be looking at Mbabu. He has all the physical attributes to cope with a high intensity system and all the technical attributes to deliver when he makes his runs forward. With his contract running out in 2020 you’d imagine he’d be available for a good price (for the buyer) and anything under £15m seems as though it has the potential to be a bargain.

If they don’t have an option to buy for Achraf Hakimi, one possible destination may be Dortmund. Lukasz Piszczek is now 33-years-old and Mbabu is good enough to make an immediate impact, while being young enough to be there for a few years – and possibly even make a profit on when he’s getting in his late 20’s.

Mads Pedersen – 22 – Nordsjaelland

The first of a Nordsjaelland double is left-back Mads Pedersen.

Pedersen first came to my attention as he made the 3rd most progressive runs p90 in the Danish League last season, though the two names above him didn’t play more than 600 minutes each. With this in mind it’s not surprising that Pedersen also managed an impressive number of dribbles, completing 60.7% of his 6.38 attempted p90. Just from the two clips below you can see why he was able to put up some good progressive run numbers.

 

Like Mbabu, he seems to offer what you want from a modern full-back. He has the physical ability and acceleration to get up and down the flank, while being able to beat his man and have the technical ability to deliver when he gets into dangerous areas. He didn’t play as many minutes as Mbabu last season due to a knee injury that kept him out of six matches, but he doesn’t seem to have a lengthy injury history which is encouraging.

The second thing which brought Pedersen to my attention, and made me include him as I’m not sure how much I trust the progressive runs numbers, was his xG + xA. From all the left-backs in the sample Pedersen had the 4th highest xG + xA p90, however those above him either spent time on the wing or took penalties (which Pedersen hasn’t as far as I’m aware. It’s also worth noting his position is listed as LM on TransferMarkt, but I think it’s LWB in a 3-4-3 from what I’ve seen). His xG + xA of 0.345 p90 is hugely impressive, with the majority coming from an xA of 0.2 p90.

This makes it unsurprising that he also had the 7th most deep completed passes p90, although his deep completed crosses p90 and passes into the box p90 was pretty average last season.

Off the ball, Nordsjaelland had the 3rd highest possession in the league so it’s not surprising that his defensive numbers aren’t crazy, amassing 7.37 recoveries p90 and 4.42 interceptions p90.

I’m not sure at the level Pedersen is at, but he’s definitely an option worth looking into for quite a few clubs – his contract is up in 2020, he has a low TransferMarkt value and he seems a good at progressing the ball down the flank, thanks to his pace and dribbling.

Karlo Bartolec – 23 – Nordsjaelland

On the other side of Nordsjaelland’s defence is right-back Karlo Bartolec, who also put forward some impressive numbers last season.

Like Mbabu and Pedersen above he played a lot of football last year, playing 94.4% of available league minutes. He missed only two games all season and in every other game he played the full 90 minutes. I feel like stats like this should make him a lot more appealing to clubs, particularly as consistency of selection in defence often feels like it’s more important than in attack.

Bartolec also had the 4th highest xG + xA p90 and just xA p90 for the sample of right-backs used, with 0.176 p90. He also had the 6th highest touches in the box p90, the 3rd highest passes into the box p90, 10th highest through balls p90, 2nd highest deep completed passes p90 and 7th highest deep completed crosses p90.

His dribbling numbers aren’t as big as the other names mentioned so far, completing 63.5% of his 4.38 attempted dribbles p90. Then it also shouldn’t be too surprising that his defensive numbers are around a similar level to that of Pedersen’s, amassing 4.53 interceptions and 8.05 recoveries p90.

From the very small amount I’ve seen of Bartolec, I quite like what I see. He seems fairly comfortable linking play and combining out wide, while also being able to create chances when he gets into advanced positions. I’m not sure how often it happens, but there’s also a few clips where he drifts inside, which can be a useful trait to have for full-back, it’s something Matt Doherty does well for Wolves. In the two clips below he does it a bit. In the first he starts wide, makes the pass and then drifts inwards before butchering the shot. Then in the second you can see when they bring the ball out of defence in more on the half space with another player on the touchline, before being on the edge of the box when the ball is cleared.

Like Pedersen, I’m not sure what level someone like Bartolec would be at, but he’s recently won his first Croatia cap which is encouraging and definitely seems a player worth keeping an eye on in the next few seasons.

Nicolas Gavory – 23 – FC Utrecht

This is a bit late, given FC Utrecht snapped him up in the summer, but most names that popped up as looking promising were snapped up in the summer, so I thought I’d include Gavory as he’s still playing for a club outside the top five leagues and one that isn’t a huge club.

The main draw to Gavory is his xA, which at 0.27 p90 was the highest in the sample of left-backs used. He was a set-piece taker for Clermont last season, so I imagine most of this originates from set-pieces rather than open play, but he could still provide good value for a club who’s looking for a good set piece taker. He completed 1.67 deep completions p90 (both crosses and passes) which is slightly above the average of 1.37 p90, while his 2.95 passes into the box p90 also wasn’t much more than the average of 2.50 p90.

His dribble numbers are fairly average elsewhere too, though he has a high completion rate at 85.8%, he only attempted 1.69 dribbles p90.

With 5.16 interceptions p90, 7.41 defensive duels p90 and 9.27 recoveries p90 his defensive activity numbers are decent, but not much better than average.

I’m not too sure what to think of Gavory to be honest. His set-piece taking ability seems a great asset to have, but he doesn’t seem to offer all that much else. With that being said, a fairly average left-back may be a decent opportunity to find a good set-piece taker for good value. From Utrecht’s point of view, if they deem him at least just as good as their previous left-back then they haven’t lost anything but they’ve gained a good set-piece taker, making it a positive move on the whole

I think I’d like to see some more impressive open play numbers to suggest a move to the top five leagues, but he is still 23-years-old and could develop further at Utrecht.

Conclusion

I really struggled to find good full-backs to mention here. While there were quite a few names with decent numbers, many of them had been signed by a team in the top five leagues over the summer. Some names who had some good numbers but were signed include: Florent Hadergonaj signed by Huddersfield in January, Borna Sosa signed by Stuttgart, Angelino signed by PSV and Joshua Brenet signed by Hoffenheim. Celtic’s Kieran Tierney also has some good numbers, but given he’s pretty highly regarded and would likely cost a big sum I thought I’d leave him out.

There’s also an honorable mention for 23-year-old Petar Stojanovic from Dinamo Zagreb who had the 2nd highest xA p90 of the right-backs used and seems worth keeping an eye on. I left him out partially to have a balance of two right-backs and two left-backs but also because I mention a few Dinamo players in the other pieces and I didn’t want to feel like I was recommending half the team.

From the above it feels as though Kevin Mbabu’s next move will be to a big club, the Nordsjaelland pair look worth keeping and eye on and could be a decent gamble, but I’m not really sure what to make of Gavory outside his set-piece taking.

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